Easter eggs go back long before Easter, and even long before the beginning of farming. As long ago as the Paleolithic, about 60,000 BC, people in Africa were scratching patterns and lines on ostrich eggs, though nobody knows what they had in mind. By the later Stone Age, around 4400 BC, people in Sudan and Egypt thought of ostrich eggs as symbolizing rebirth and life after death.
By the Bronze Age, people were using ostrich eggs in Crete and in Greece, and putting painted ostrich eggs in tombs in Susa (Iran). People thought of ostrich eggs as apotropaic – pushing away evil – and as being appropriate for graves, because they signified rebirth. The Zoroastrian spring holiday of Nowruz has always involved painted eggs. With the rise of the Silk Road, ostrich eggs from Iran reached China, where they were a sort of fad item for rich people under the Han Dynasty. Chinese people started to dye eggs for the spring Qingming festival.
Buddhist monasteries in India and Tibet (at Tashilumpo) also collected African ostrich eggs, probably also because they symbolized rebirth. When people started to build Christian churches in the 200s and 300s AD, they hung ostrich eggs in them to remind people of Jesus, who died and was reborn.
About 600 AD, Pope Gregory tells us that Christians wouldn’t eat eggs during Lent, probably so they’d seem more special at Easter. A few years later, in the time of Mohammed (and maybe for centuries before that), people in Mecca hung ostrich eggs in a special tree. By the 700s AD, Islamic shrines also had ostrich eggs hanging in them. When Islam reached India about 1000 AD, people in India added ostrich eggs in their mosques, often as souvenirs of the hajj to Mecca.
Egypt was very rich at this time, selling paper and sugar to Italy. Egyptians raised a lot of chickens, and maybe that’s when people started to paint chicken eggs as well as ostrich eggs. Conveniently, Easter was also the time of year when hens began to lay eggs again after not laying much during the winter, so eggs were exciting and new in the spring.
From Egypt, traders and travelers brought the tradition of painting eggs – some real eggs and some made of clay – to Europe. In 1307, King Edward I of England spent “18 pence for 450 eggs to be boiled and dyed or covered with gold leaf and distributed to the Royal household.” But priests and imams also hung up ostrich eggs in both churches and mosques, as a symbol of rebirth.
Spanish and Portuguese invaders brought Easter egg coloring to North and South America in the 1500s AD. Puritans, in England and America, didn’t dye eggs, but by the 1700s German and English settlers who weren’t Puritans had brought the idea to the Atlantic coast. The Easter bunny, a German tradition, probably also came to America with the first German immigrants to Pennsylvaniain the 1700s.
Learn by doing: dyeing Easter Eggs
More about Easter
But check out mainly Nile Green’s 2006 article on ostrich eggs and peacock feathers.